Remembering Winifred Atwell

In my ‘Remembering’ bits, I like to draw people’s attention back to artists from the dawn of the charts, from posts published long before anyone was actually reading this blog. Back we go, then, to 1954…

Winifred Atwell is a significant figure in the British charts as, when she scored her first #1 in late ’54 (a Christmas #1 before that was something worth noticing), she became the first black artist to do so. ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ – a medley of old music hall tunes – stayed at the top for five weeks. It is very of its time, but still a fun listen. You can read my original post here.

Some of the melodies in that record date from the the 1920s, so we are really looking a century back in time from our modern-day vantage point. Anyway, Winifred Atwell had arrived in the UK in 1946, from Trinidad via the USA, and had been accepted into the Royal Academy for Music, where she achieved the highest grades possible. She supported herself by playing boogie-woogie tunes in clubs around London, where she was spotted and signed.

Between 1952 and ’59, she scored fourteen Top 20 hits in the UK, many with wonderful titles such as ‘Flirtation Waltz’ and ‘Let’s Have a Ding-Dong!’ (You could say she was a suggestive performer, in that she released no less than five singles beginning with the word ‘Let’s…’) She did the Royal Variety, where she was invited to play privately for the Queen, who requested ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. (Ma’am does love a good knees-up!) On stage she would often start off by playing classical pieces on a grand piano, before switching to a battered old piano bought in a market for fifty shillings – her ‘other’ piano, which was credited on her records and which travelled the world with her – to bash out some ragtime tunes.

Her 2nd number one, ‘The Poor People of Paris’ is interesting – not because it sounds much different from her first – but because it featured as sound engineer a young Joe Meek, who would go on to produce three seminal sixties #1s (and who I did a post on a year or so back.) In the background, hovering above Winny’s piano, is a high-pitched whine which I thought, and pondered in my original post, might have been a Theramin, but which I have since read was probably a musical saw. Either way, you can hear the embryonic beginnings of ‘Telstar’ here, in the video below:

And this live performance, from a couple of years later, has Atwell banging away on her famous ‘other’ piano (I love her winks at the camera…)

By 1958, when this was filmed, her hit-scoring days were almost over – killed stone-dead, as so many artists’ careers were, by rock ‘n’ roll and then the swinging sixties. Still, Atwell remained a popular figure on TV variety shows and in concert. She moved to Australia, where she was a huge star, and where she lived until her death on this day in 1983. Her final performances, quite sweetly, were on the organ in her parish church.

Despite her music now sounding incredibly quaint, and her dressing like your aunt at a wedding, Winifred Atwell’s legacy lives on. Keith Emerson spoke of her influence on his music, while David Bowie also reminisced about hearing her rags on the radio as a boy. But the biggest example has to be Sir Elton John, who cites Atwell as one of the main reasons behind him wanting to learn piano.

Winifred Atwell, 27th February 1914 – 28th February 1983

117. ‘On the Rebound’, by Floyd Cramer

What do we have here then? A piano instrumental, with a perky little riff, strong notes of – deep breath – Russ Conway

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On the Rebound, by Floyd Cramer (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 18th – 25th May 1961

For the first twenty seconds of this record, which I’d never heard before, I was beginning to envision myself giving it a terrible write-up. Cheesy, irritating, repetitive… And it is. But. Unlike, say, Russ Conway’s records (sorry Russ, I do end up picking on you every time an instrumental #1 comes along, but you were awful…) there is a lot more to this than just the piano.

Thirty seconds in the main riff drops away and we get a little blast of honky-tonk swagger, drenched in ‘ooohs’ from the backing singers, which acts as a prelude for the brilliant moment one minute in when it all breaks down and we’re left with drums, clapping and a natty little bassline. Russ never did anything like this… This is pretty funky. Then the violins come in for a little call-and-response with Floyd’s piano. By the time the main piano riff comes back, lifted up by the backing singers, it all makes sense. And by the end, as the riff is deconstructed piece by piece and we finish with a thump, you’ve actually enjoyed it.

I feel as if I must know this song from somewhere, that I have heard it before in an advert, or a movie… It sounds really familiar. The only thing I can find is that ‘On the Rebound’ featured in ‘An Education’, a film I saw once, years ago. It surely cannot have lingered in my subconscious for so long just from that… Or maybe this is simply a sign of well-written, nicely executed little tune – that it sounds ubiquitous even when it’s not. This is a lost gem of a number one single, its week at the top buried among the leviathans of early sixties pop: Elvis, The Everlys, Cliff. It sounds simultaneously old-fashioned – this could be 1955 and that could be Winfred Atwell at the piano – and modern – the rock ‘n’ roll swagger that the drums, the guitar and the handclaps lend means that this isn’t 1955 and that certainly isn’t Ms. Atwell. The piano instrumental, though, has proved a surprisingly resilient genre over the course of this countdown… We haven’t had a trumpet, or a violin instrumental hit the top for many a year but the piano keeps on popping back up!

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Anyway, now the song is done we can focus on the main event of this post – Floyd Cramer himself. This is his one and only week as a credited chart topping star. Note, though, the emphasis on the word ‘credited’… Because the list of songs on which Cramer featured as a session pianist is mighty impressive. We’ve already heard him in the background on ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’ by The Everly Brothers, ‘That’ll Be the Day’ by The Crickets, ‘Only the Lonely’ by Roy Orbison, and on Elvis’s ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ We’ll go on to hear him on pretty much every other Elvis #1 from here ‘till 1963. The list of classic hits he featured on that failed to top the UK charts is also pretty darn impressive… *clears throat*… ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, ‘The End of the World’, ‘Big Hunk ‘o Love’ and, oh yes, ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ (which I’m providing a link for because, hey, it’s the right time of year.)

However, Cramer struggled to score another ‘solo’ hit in the UK, and so the record books will know him solely for ‘On the Rebound’. He was known for his ‘slip-note’ style of piano playing, in which he would ‘slip’ from an out of key note into the correct note (sounds like an excuse I should have tried during my ill-fated attempt at keyboard lessons – “I didn’t play the wrong note, Sir, I was just playing in the ‘slip-note’ style. Haven’t you heard of it?”) It is this trick, I think, that gives the main riff it’s annoyingly perky, jangly feel, but what do I know? Floyd obviously felt it worked for him.

One final thing… Why’s it called ‘On the Rebound’? Honest answer: who knows? If I’ve learned one thing while writing this blog it’s that you can give an instrumental whatever the hell name you want.

86. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway

I think we’ve heard this record before… ‘Roulette’ may, in fact, be identical to Russ Conway’s first number one. Or it may sound completely different. Who knows? Who even cares?

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Roulette, by Russ Conway (his 2nd of two  #1s)

2 weeks, from 19th June – 3rd July 1959

Actually, they do sound the same. Same perky piano, same lightly strummed guitar as accompaniment. In fact, to illustrate my point, let me quote verbatim from my post on ‘Side Saddle’ (which was #1 barely two months before):

“Upon first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody, which plods along pleasantly enough without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.”

Swap ‘whole month’ for ‘two weeks’- and ‘pleasantly’ for ‘irritatingly’ because that’s the mood I’m in today – but you’re still pretty much there. This record is equally short, similarly jaunty, and is still searching for a tune that never quite seems to materialise. And why ‘Roulette’? Is it because the cascading notes that tumble at intervals throughout the song sound like a rolling roulette wheel? Or is that me putting way too much though in?

I think I hate this more than I did Conway’s first #1. It was bland; this is criminally perky and is played in an irritatingly high key. Plus those little flourishes at the end of every second note are starting to make me feel a little sick. Way, way back in one of my early posts I claimed the idea of the ‘shadow number one’ – the chart topping record that only gets there due to the reflected glow of a preceding hit. Frankie Laine had one when ‘Hey Joe’ followed the chart-humping ‘I Believe’. Rosemary Clooney had one with ‘Mambo Italiano’ hot on the heels of ‘This Ole House’ (though ‘Mambo…’ was probably the bigger record). Guy Mitchell had one in ‘Rock-A-Billy’ after his huge hit ‘Singing the Blues’. And now we have to suffer a second dose of Russ Conway because grannies across the land liked ‘Side Saddle’, and probably thought he looked like a nice boy.

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In fact, for a ‘nice boy’ Conway led a fairly troubled life. Let’s face it, anyone who records songs of such fake jollity and forced perkiness is going to be a little screwed-up inside… Alcoholism, crippling self-doubt, a reliance on anti-depressants, an eighty (80!) a day cigarette habit – all of which can probably be attributed to his being gay but having to keep it hidden for fear of losing everything (shades of Johnnie Ray there). Unlike Ray, however, Conway remained fairly popular throughout his career, and was still performing publicly just two weeks before he died in 2000. He had actually sliced the tip of a finger off during the war, so it’s pretty impressive that he could play the piano at all I suppose.

God, I have been a little harsh on ole Russ here, haven’t I? I just had a quick listen to some of the other hits from his late fifties heyday – the likes of ‘China Tea’ and ‘Party Pops’ – in an attempt to redeem his chart career. But. I’m sorry to confirm that they ALL. SOUND. THE BLOODY. SAME! In desperation I tried to look for some clue as to the inspiration for ‘Roulette’, but the Wiki entry is one line long and there ain’t much else out there. What little I could find all seemed to prefer this disc to ‘Side Saddle’ (come on, people!) But then I found this, and I started with a quote so I’ll end with one too.

Thanks to the guy(s) at fiftiesnumberones.blogspot.com – which I will wholeheartedly recommend as long as you promise to still read my blog – for their brilliant description of ‘Roulette’ as an ice-cream van jingle… “albeit an ice cream van plying its trade around the dusk tinged streets of a council estate on a late October evening. In the rain.”

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End post

83. ‘Side Saddle’, by Russ Conway

And so, The Winter of the Ballad, which I took such pains to introduce in my previous post, experiences a sudden thaw. Spring has sprung, and has brought with it a perky piece of piano-pop.

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Side Saddle, by Russ Conway (his 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 27th March – 24th April 1959

Upon a first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody (of sorts), which plods along without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.

The obvious comparison to draw here is with Winifred Atwell, who has already claimed two UK chart-topping singles with records sounding very similar to this. But Atwell at least had a kind of frantic energy about her piano-playing – you could picture her bashing out the hits with a smile and a bead of sweat rolling down her temple. Whereas you can only imagine Conway plodding his way through ‘Side Saddle’ with a cheesy grin-slash-wink combo. The other piano-led #1 single which springs to mind at this time is, of course, ‘Great Balls of Fire’. But to compare that record to this record is, to my mind, heresy of the highest order. There is a slight concession to rock ‘n’ roll here, in that someone in the background is tickling a drum kit in time to Conway’s piano, but that’s strictly it.

It’s a strange chart-topping record, this. At best I’d describe it as incidental music, or silent movie music: you can imagine it going down quite well as an accompaniment to Buster Keaton running down a railroad track. It is very 1932. Which means we have to pose a 3rd question: Why now? Why did this curio of a record zoom to the top of the charts in the spring of 1959? My research has thrown up no answers. It wasn’t an old song; it was written and released in ’59, apparently recorded for a TV adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – which at least helps explain the olde-worlde feel of the song. There’s no clue as to how the melody concerns a horse-riding style popular with posh old ladies. According to Wiki “the song was a staple of the BBC’s ‘Housewives Choice’ radio programme”, which perhaps says more than anything I could ever write.

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Due to summer holiday commitments, this is the first time in over a fortnight that I have sat down to write one of these posts. In that time, I’ve listened to very little music, and the music I have heard has been radio-friendly, modern pop. Perhaps ‘Side Saddle’, then, is suffering from being the oldest record I’ve heard for a while. Perhaps if I were in the swing of things – in my mid-season form of writing a post every couple of days – it wouldn’t stand out so much. But then again… maybe not. I fear that, whatever way you look at it, this track is simply a relic. And, glancing down my list o’ number one singles… Oh, goody. There’s more to come from our Russ in very short order.

One final thing of note… If you click on the video below and discover a hitherto unrevealed love of bland, piano-based background Muzak, Spotify has the most extensive collection of Russ Conway back-catalogue ever seen. Like, seriously. There must be fifty-odd albums on there. Knock yourselves out!

45. ‘The Poor People of Paris’, by Winifred Atwell

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The Poor People of Paris, by Winifred Atwell (her 2nd of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 13th April to 4th May 1956

Listening to a recording of Winifred Atwell playing the piano, I can’t help but picture her smiling. She must never have stopped smiling. Her 2nd #1, just like her first, is a spectacularly perky piece of music.

Unlike her first chart-topper, however, this isn’t a medley. It’s the one tune, blasted through in barely two minutes. It wouldn’t have felt out of place as one of the songs on ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, though. And by that I mean that it sounds exactly the same. The same ragtime style, the same boogie-woogie piano, and the same frenetic pace. As jaunty as both songs have been, I won’t be rushing to try out her Greatest Hits… I can guess what it will sound like.

Actually, there is one little moment of note here, musically. Midway through, as Atwell returns for a second run-through of the melody, a strange sound begins playing over her piano. It sounds like it could be an extremely high voice – a super-soprano, maybe – or someone whistling. Or that weird box (a Theremin, or a Moog synthesiser?) that’s used to make sound effects in Sci-Fi B movies. To me it’s a very sixties kind of sound, and I’m surprised to hear it popping up on a chart-topper this early – if that indeed is what it is. I’ve had a quick look online, but can find no answer to what the sound is…

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In lieu of writing any more about this record (Miss Atwell certainly got it over with in a manner that suggests she was bursting for the toilet, so we’ll keep it similarly brief) let’s look at the song in general. ‘The Poor People of Paris’ is a French song – quel surprise – recorded most famously by Edith Piaf as ‘La Goulante du Pauvre Jean.’ When it came time for the track to be adapted into English the man who did so misheard the ‘Jean’ from the French title as ‘gens’: hence the poor people of Paris. Tsk tsk. Us Anglophones and our terrible attempts at French, eh? He needn’t have bothered with his adaptation either, really, as pretty much everybody after Madame Piaf recorded the song as an instrumental.

I am glad that we’re seeing Winifred Atwell here again, don’t get me wrong. That a black woman could score not one but TWO #1s, and a score of other hits, at this time remains impressive. But the first time was always going to be the more significant and the choice of songs for the ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ medley made it very interesting. This record, however, just feels a little throwaway. Atwell’s legacy lives on in much more recent chart-topping singles though, as she was a big influence, apparently, in Elton John learning the piano.

On a final note… Do any other British chart-toppers include a capital city in their title? There must be one but – and I’m doing this completely off the top of my head here – I can’t think of any. All I can get is ‘New York, New York’ (neither a #1, nor a capital city), ‘London’s Calling’ (capital city – yes, #1 hit – no) and, um, Berlin. The band. You know, from ‘Top Gun’. Do comment if you can do any better than me on this…

26. ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, by Winifred Atwell

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Let’s Have Another Party, by Winifred Atwell (her first of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 3rd Dec. 1954 to 7th Jan. 1955

I wrote in the intro to my last post that Rosemary Clooney was finally getting our pulses racing – or our toes tapping, at least – and here comes Winifred Atwell to keep up the momentum.

It’s another piano-led song. Well, I say ‘piano-led’; it’s nothing but piano. Winnie and her piano, bashing out a selection of boogie-woogie and ragtime standards in extremely short order. According to Wikipedia we are getting classics such as ‘Broken Doll’, ‘Lily of Laguna’ and the ‘Sheik of Araby’ served up with a verse here, a snatch of chorus there, then on to the next one. I don’t recognise any of the featured tunes – though I’m pretty sure one of them was played by an ice-cream van in days of childhood yore.

It’s jaunty enough, but the effect of squeezing so many different tunes into a couple of minutes means it’s a bit of an odd listen. They’re all played in the same ragtime tempo, so there are no segues: it’s straight from one song into another with no time to draw breath, before we screech to a halt with dum-didley-dum-dum… dum-dum. But hey, it’s the first medley to top the charts, and off the top of my head, I’m not sure if there will be another one until Jive Bunny in thirty-five years’ time. On Spotify, the track is listed as having a Part I and Part II, the former being all of these old hits strung together while the latter is a much-more sedate number, even featuring a bit of guitar. I think, though I’m unable to confirm, that only the first part counts as the record that hit #1. Maybe Part II was the B-side.

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Anyway, all of this nonsense about which part is blah blah blah pales wildly into insignificance when it is revealed that Ms. Atwell was… black! Born in Trinidad & Tobago, before moving to the States and then to London, she becomes, a little over two years into their existence, the first black artist to hit the top of the charts. It’s a big moment, and worth taking a moment to reflect on this happening at a time when, say, landlords could stick a ‘No Blacks’ sign in their windows with impunity and, in the USA at least, Winifred Atwell wouldn’t have been allowed on the same public transport as her fellow chart-toppers. Just because this is the frothiest of throw-away records shouldn’t render it any less significant.

In fact, it’s almost ironic that she achieved this historic landmark with a medley full of old music-hall hits. The sort of hits that were big in even less enlightened times. The sort that might have been sung by men in black-face, to howls of laughter (seriously, Google ‘Lily of Laguna’ to see just what kind of song it is…) In a way, she is reclaiming them, and making them popular on her own terms.

And with that, I’ll descend from my high-horse, and conclude by saying that we will be hearing from Winfred Atwell again soon. She was huge in the early to mid-1950s (played for the Queen, didn’t you know!), and definitely seemed to have a winning formula. Hey, if it ain’t broke… ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ was the follow-up (somewhat inevitably) to ‘Let’s Have a Party’, and was followed up by another medley, the wonderfully titled ‘Let’s Have a Ding-Dong’. All good, (very) old-fashioned fun!